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China faces an uncertain future in the zero-Covid endgame

The Chinese took the art of cryptic demonstrations to new heights last week. Well aware of the perils of protest in an authoritarian state with about 600mn surveillance cameras, the crowds of people who turned out to criticise Beijing’s stifling “zero-Covid” regime did so in a number of ingenious ways.

One group of students from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing held aloft sheets of paper bearing a mathematical equation that describes the expansion of the universe. The message, it turned out, was that the equation had been developed by Alexander Friedmann, whose name sounds like “Free Man” — and freedom is what the protesters were calling for.

If that was esoteric, then what to make of a woman leading three alpacas down a street? “It was definitely a demonstration,” said one witness, who declined to be named. According to internet lore known to hundreds of millions of Chinese, an alpaca is a “grass mud horse” or a “cao ni ma” — a homonym for “fuck your mother”. The insult was being directed — but with plausible deniability — towards the Chinese government.

The protests, which took place in more than 20 cities, have ended. But the demands of the demonstrators to unwind zero-Covid are being met, at least in part. After nearly three years of subjecting 1.4bn people to a regime of mass testing, travel curbs and rolling urban lockdowns, Beijing is lifting or relaxing restrictions in cities across the country.

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These are certainly momentous times. But it is unlikely that the sudden policy shift represents meek acquiescence towards the street protests by Xi Jinping, China’s strongman leader. A much more plausible explanation is that the change of heart was prompted by a build-up of discontent within the vast Communist party hierarchy as the economy stuttered, youth unemployment surged and education was disrupted.

“Zero-Covid is a very stupid policy,” said one former official, who declined to be named, giving vent to a popular sentiment last week.

The big risks, however, concern what comes next. China is in uncharted territory: a dash towards herd immunity could cause the deaths of as many as 1mn people in a massive “winter wave” of infections, according to recent mathematical modelling by Wigram Capital Advisors, an Asia-focused macroeconomic advisory group.

Under a scenario in which China’s leadership continues to roll back zero-Covid, the national health system would quickly become overwhelmed. With daily fatalities reaching as high as 20,000 in mid-March, demand for intensive care units would peak at 10 times higher than capacity by late March, according to the Wigram Capital Advisors’ model.

Aside from the human cost, the political fall out could be intense. Xi has been hailed by the state media as the “commander-in-chief of the people’s war against Covid”. He has boasted that China’s response to the pandemic — which has kept officially reported total deaths down to the very low number of 5,235 — demonstrated the “superiority” of the country’s system.

If deaths start to rise sharply, it will not only mark a personal failure for Xi. It will also raise questions about his judgment and the ability of China’s highly centralised power structure to make wise decisions.

“China’s current management of Covid measures points to a leadership vacuum, narrow thinking and general bad management,” says Andrew Collier, China country analyst at GlobalSource Partners, a consultancy.

Beijing’s biggest shortcoming has been its failure to use three years of controlling the population to ensure complete vaccination coverage for the population. It has also prevented the import of foreign mRNA vaccines, which are known to be much more effective than the homegrown variety that China has been administering.

The result is that as the country starts to lift its zero-Covid policies, there are about 85mm people who remain either unvaccinated or insufficiently vaccinated against the Omicron variant.

The reasons for this failure remain a topic for debate. Certainly, the vaccine hesitancy of elderly Chinese has been a factor. But so too has been nationalism; the hubris behind Beijing’s insistence on domestic vaccine technology looks set to incur a cost in lives. Another factor may have been economic: the constant Covid testing of hundreds of millions of people has been a reliable money spinner for testing companies with links to local governments.

But for now, as China prepares for its Covid endgame, stresses are starting to show. Beijing is running out of fever-reducing medicine such as ibuprofen and paracetamol as clinics fill up with patients. But in the parallel universe of Chinese propaganda, everything is fine. Official statistics reported no new deaths on Friday and only 16,363 locally transmitted cases, less than half the peak caseload reported last month.

The official People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist party, was in a triumphant mood. “We have got through the worst period,” said a commentary in the newspaper. “In the past three years, the virus has become weaker, but we have become stronger.” Whether such strength is real or rhetorical will soon become apparent.

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